The autobiographical note which Denis Mitchell wrote for his major exhibition in Swansea in 1979 began with the memorable sentence
"Ever since I can remember I longed to be an artist".
Now, at the age of eighty, he can look back on a long life in which that longing has been fulfilled. It has not been an easy passage. He was not born into the world of fine art, studios and galleries and there was none of that family wealth which has released the individual talents of so many British artists of this century. Yet he would be the first to acknowledge that his life has been blessed with moments of splendid opportunity which have enabled him to pursue his ambition. Meanwhile his many friends would insist that it is through Denis Mitchell's genius for living life fully that the opportunities have been taken on the bound and he has overcome great odds to become so good an artist.
Denis Mitchell was born on the 30th June 1912. His first year was spent at Wealdstone, Middlesex, where his father, Albert (who had been the manager of the Empire Theatres in Swansea and Cardiff), was running The Coliseum and also acting as a talent spotter for the agency Stolls. This was the heyday of the music halls. His mother, Blanche (nee Coward), appears to have not enjoyed being away from Wales and when her bachelor brother, Charles, fell ill with pneumonia in 1913 she moved to Mumbles to housekeep for him and took six-year-old Endell and one-year-old Denis with her. Uncle Charles' pneumonia left him with a permanent infirmity and Blanche stayed on. The two boys grew up in the pretty fishing port and holiday village tucked in the eastern edge of the Gower peninsula, near the major seaport and industrial centre of Swansea. In recollection it was mostly an idyllic childhood, pleasant and easy going, though the family was always short of money. However, there were health problems and in 1924 Denis spent a year off school recovering from tuberculosis. Meanwhile Endell, more seriously smitten with the same disease, had to spend two years in a sanatorium in Switzerland.
Early schooling for Denis had been at Miss Pinkham's in Mumbles. He must have shown promise because he then went on to the Mumbles Grammar School where he remembers being "good at not much". Obviously the tuberculosis set him back and he was not allowed to play games. He was interested in art but in an academic institution art was not encouraged. In 1928 at the age of sixteen Denis left school without any qualifications - at a time when the post-war economy was moving into depression. He recalls his attempts to earn a living with a series of odd jobs in Swansea, particularly his attempts to sell vacuum cleaners to people whom he could see could barely afford a broom!
Then, at the age of seventeen he found a job at a commercial art studio and for the first time handled some of the tools which were to become so important in his life. Another formative event occurred at this time. He became involved with amateur dramatics at the Little Theatre in Swansea, acting in Sweeny Todd, the Demon Barber and Shakespeare's The Tempest. But what really excited him was making sets and the whole business of construction and decoration. Through his connection with the Little Theatre he met Dylan Thomas, an ex-member of the theatre company. They drank together at The Mermaid' pub and formed a friendship which lasted through the thirties.
But securing reliable work was still a problem during those uncertain years at the end of the twenties and when his aunt Lilian wanted two cottages renovated in West Cornwall Endell gave up his job with Lilywhites, the sports outfitters in London, and joined Denis on the journey west to a new life.
His aunt's cottages were at Balnoon ('Mine on the Moor') in the hamlet of Halsetown some two miles south of St Ives, where the Penwith moors edge down into the windswept farmland of a narrow coastal belt. The idea was to convert the cottages into one large house for eventual sale. During the work the livelihood of the two brothers would be provided by the produce from the one and a half acre garden, which, until that time, had been fallow. Within a few months there were goats, chickens and geese as well as crops on the land. But despite a degree of self-sufficiency they were aware that they were dependent for sustenance upon the £1 a week which their mother sent them from Wales. When, after two years or so, the conversion was completed, house sales were at a low ebb and so Aunt Lilian was pleased for the two brothers to stay on and keep the house and small-holding in good shape.
St Ives in the early thirties was a popular place for artists, although the vast migrations of painters through the picturesque fishing port, which had characterized the place at the turn of the century, had reduced greatly and a decade would pass before the modernists had their day. During the thirties the giants were, in the main, traditional painters who had settled there to work; members of the St Ives Society of Artists such as Moffat Lindner, Julius Olsen RA, Adrian Stokes, John Park, Borlase Smart and Shearer Armstrong. But at the time that Denis and Endell were foraying into town for their treat of a three penny glass of beer there were new undercurrents which eventually were to emerge as a broad and vigorous river of post-war British Art. The source could be traced to Ben Nicholson and Christopher Wood's stay in 1928 - during which time they had 'discovered' the crude but magical paintings of the retired seaman, Alfred Wallis. Denis Mitchell, though keen on painting and smitten by the romance of the artists' colony of St Ives, had not yet developed a critical eye. It was the custom for some forty or so studios to be opened to the public on one day each year and he recalls one such day—"I saw this little bent old fisherman sitting outside his house with a lot of paintings on cardboard arranged on orange boxes, and a large model yacht. I stopped to look at them and thought, 'what a lot of childish work'. It was Alfred Wallis and I now treasure on my walls at home three of his paintings."
By 1935 Denis and Endell had added onto the market garden another two acres at Hellesveor. There they grew broccoli and early potatoes while at Balnoon they concentrated on flowers for market—violets, polyanthus and daffodils. It was enjoyable but precarious and the brothers were not totally committed to a lifetime in horticulture. Anyway Denis's mind was turning more and more to painting.
Every so often they tried to get back to Wales to see their mother and on these visits Denis would often meet up with Dylan Thomas, whom he remembers as a good companion and someone who opened up another aspect of the world of art. One such visit he remembers, "... we arranged to meet to go to the England versus Wales rugby match. We met in the Woolworth Cafeteria. Dylan had £1 but we had no money. However, my brother had a ring an ex-girlfriend had given him - so we pawned it for £1.10 shillings. This led to a memorable day and evening (needless to say, we missed the match) starting at The Cross Keys in Swansea and ending, after visiting a number of pubs on the way, at The Mermaid at Oystermouth, some six miles away. Incidentally we learned that Dylan's £1 was to pay the butcher."
In 1935 Denis and Endell organized an overseas holiday and sailed on a cargo boat from Swansea to Gibraltar. The fare was five shillings a day and their objective was to walk and camp through Spain to the north coast. After they had naively pitched their tent just over the Spanish border they soon realized that Spain was on the brink of civil war. Following a brusque interrogation by the Spanish border guards they opted to turn south and headed for Tangier.
There they found lodgings were cheap and they stayed for a month, painting and drawing and enjoying the cosmopolitan Mediterranean culture. The fact that they were so absorbed in their lives in Cornwall that they had been unaware of the gloomy developments in Spain, plus the buoyancy of their reaction, was typical of those days. "Flat out in all directions" was how Denis remembers it, using a phrase he coined from his fellow artist and friend John Wells.
The trip to Tangier strengthened Denis's palette and his painting gained in confidence. Several excellent small oils were to be finished during the next two years—taken from the holiday sketches. The artistic life of St Ives was an increasing draw and the market garden was unable to provide a large enough income to keep both the brothers. Endell was helping at The Golden Lion Inn in St Ives and in 1938 became the landlord of the Castle Inn on Fore Street, a move with important implications for the future artists of the area. Denis, meanwhile, kept up the market garden. But the need to earn more money and the lure of St Ives combined to take him into a summer job at the Crowdy Crawn Craft Market on the harbourside. It was a fortuitous move, for a strikingly attractive young woman also came to work there. He had noticed her before walking up and down the Stennack on his route from Balnoon and had met her father on several occasions. It was sufficient for an introduction. Jane Stevens entered Denis's life. They courted for two years and in 1938 Denis proposed. On 14th September 1939 they drove out to Denis's parish church at Towednack and were quietly married in a simple ceremony.
By now the war was upon them and at the age of twenty-seven Denis felt that he ought to offer himself to the Territorials. Fortunately for him, on the day he went to sign on, the recruiting office was closed. He was then advised to wait for his call-up papers and continue to grow food. In 1940, Jennifer, the first of three daughters, was born and in 1942, when the call-up came, he was asked to make the choice between mining and the army. Probably mining was statistically slightly more dangerous but since he could serve his time down the tin mine at Geevor, which lay some six miles down the coastal road in the village of Pendeen, he opted for work underground. There was also the opportunity to keep on with his painting.
Somehow energy was also found for the Home Guard—as a Corporal. In retrospect Denis feels that all these events were fateful. The fact that the recruiting office was closed had deflected his path from a dangerous course, for the unit which he would have joined suffered badly in the Dunkirk withdrawal. Then there was the positive experience of mining, or "subterranean carving" as he puts it. There is much business to be learned in handling tools and in manipulating loads. At Geevor, working alongside the stalwart Pendeen and St Just men, he learned their craft, which in the later post-war years, was to earn him his living as he turned from painting to sculpture. Finally, by serving in the Home Guard he met and became friends with the great artist and potter, Bernard Leach. It was through his connection with Bernard that he became an assistant to Barbara Hepworth at a time when he was becoming increasingly involved with sculpture.
It is interesting to look back on Denis Mitchell's early years as a painter. Mostly he worked from the landscape and the works show a progression from traditional pictorial expression in the early thirties through to the late forties when they have a maturity of style and modern influences can be seen. There is an economy of colour and tonal nuances become secondary to form and line. His range and skill are also revealed in a number of competent domestic portraits which have survived and a particularly moving sequence of paintings drawn from his experiences underground at Geevor. It is no surprise that in the immediate post-war years he had joined the St Ives Society of Artists which, under the broad-minded and intelligent plans of its chairman Borlase Smart, was beginning to show modern works alongside the more traditional. A policy not without its problems at the time!
These austere years after the war were tough for the Mitchells. In 1945 their second daughter Denise was born and with four mouths to feed there was a prodigious round of work; market gardening, occasional fishing and painting. Yet he still remembers it as fun. His physical endurance which had been honed by the long shifts underground stood Denis in good stead. His brother Endell began exhibitions of what were called locally "advanced" artists in the saloon bar of the Castle Inn. Denis was included. Also he was able to show in the crypt of the new gallery of the converted Norway chapel. Other exhibitors included Hepworth, Lanyon, Misome Peile, Alice Moore, Nicholson, Wells and Wynter. In April of 1947 G.R. Downing began to have exhibitions at the back of his bookshop at 28 Fore Street and Denis's name appears in the list of exhibitors in the spring mixed show. It was an exciting time. Terry Frost, David Haughton, W Barns-Graham and Sven Berlin were all contemporaries. Adrian Ryan was in Mousehole. William Gear and David Bomberg had paid working visits to the area and the artist and critic Patrick Heron, who had worked at the Leach Pottery during the war, was beginning to write and exhibit in London and Cornwall.
In 1949 Denis Mitchell had a stroke of good fortune. Barbara Hepworth had asked Bernard Leach whether he knew anyone who was skilled with his hands who would help her for three days. He recommended Denis. When the three days were up she asked him to work for her full-time. This he did for the next ten years becoming her chief assistant at an important time in her career. It was in that year that it became apparent that the tensions within the St Ives Society of Artists could not be reconciled. The 'moderns' and their sympathizers broke away to form a new society. Denis arranged for the inaugural meeting to be held at his brother's pub, the Castle Inn, and he became a founder member of the Penwith Society of the Arts in Cornwall. (The formation and development of the Penwith Society is well documented in Dr David Brown's excellent catalogue published for the 1985 exhibition 'St Ives 1939-1964' held at the Tate Gallery.) Denis Mitchell played a full and responsible part in the artistic development of St Ives and was a supportive and healing figure at a time when, understandably, passions ran high and internicene rivalries were legion. His calm and wise counsel enabled him to maintain friendships in all camps without compromising his own integrity. His support for other artists was both practical and consistent. In 1951 he and Tom Early organized an exhibition of works—'Fifteen Artists and Craftsmen from around St Ives' at Heal's Mansard Gallery. The catalogue, exquisitely printed on rag paper by Guido Morris in St Ives, lists the names—Ben Nicholson, Barbara Hepworth, Patrick Heron, Peter Lanyon, John Wells, Sven Berlin, Misome Peile, Bryan Wynter, W Barns-Graham, Bernard Leach, Guido Morris, Alfred Wallis, Terry Frost, Tom Early and Denis Mitchell. It was a clever blend of the established artists with sound reputations and the younger, as then, relatively unknown. Today it reads like a roll of honour.
Denis Mitchell was generous with his time and support for others and in
1955 he was elected chairman of the Penwith Society, a post which he
held for two years. In turn he always appreciated the help which he received,
particularly from Barbara Hepworth and Ben Nicholson. He was grateful
for the friendship of Pat and Delia Heron, who not only put him up on
his trips to London but also introduced him to other leading artists. He
vividly the visit with Pat and Delia Heron to Henry Moore. Denis had
been burning the candle at both ends and asked Delia's brother, who was
if he could give him something to keep him going. Unfortunately the prescribed
pill had amazing side effects and Denis recalls drinking tea in a warm
conservatory—with his eyeballs rolling quite independently—out
of control! Everyone was too polite to comment.
In 1955 Denis Mitchell had another idea for collaborative work which might earn some money. He had been screen-printing for the painter of cats, Anne Sefton (known as 'Fish') and when this work was finished he thought that a series of placemats would be a good money-spinner. Several artist friends offered designs in return for two dozen mats. With Endell's name alongside his on the letterhead and with a small financial contribution from Stanley Dorfman the mats were made and marketed under the name Porthia Prints. In March 1955 an exhibition was held at Heal and Sons, London, in their Craftsmen's Market and Picture Gallery. Thirteen artists took part showing paintings, prints, reliefs and drawings. These were to give credibility to their designed table mats which were silk-screen printed on linen and available at £2 15d a set of six. Unfortunately they never quite hit the commercial jackpot. Today individual mats change hands for over one hundred pounds! Again it is worth recalling the names of those who took part in this scheme; Robert Adams, W Barns-Graham, Stanley Dorfman, John Forrester, Terry Frost, William Gear, Barbara Hepworth, Patrick Heron, Roger Hilton, Peter Lanyon, Michael Snow, John Wells and Denis Mitchell.
The next venture for Denis came in 1959 when he left Barbara Hepworth to strike out alone. Encouraged by Ben Nicholson he began to sculpt in bronze. The only way he could afford the castings was to use a sand-casting foundry in St just. As he later commented, this was a blessing in disguise because only simple shapes can be cast by this method. This led to great discipline and economy of form. Furthermore the casts came out very rough and he then had to use all his knowledge of carving and manual skills to achieve the final purity of line and finish. (He still uses this method today, but the foundry is Terrills of Hayle.) The sculptures of the sixties showed a remarkable maturity and Marjorie Parr, who had met Denis and shown his work in her gallery in St Ives, now exhibited him successfully in her new gallery in King's Road, Chelsea. Patrick Heron, in a catalogue introduction to the solo exhibition of Mitchell's in 1969 wrote a lucid description of the essential nature of the bronzes: "... a Mitchell is a form, usually a single, rather streamlined form, enclosed as it were by a single skin - but a skin, or surface, which weaves and bends and buckles and stretches in a way so subtle, physically and dimensionally, that it can still only usefully be likened to 'organic form', though this phrase is of course a cliche. Again, a Mitchell can only come into existence at all under the direct physical touch of the sculptor's hands - his own extraordinarily experienced hands ... an art which is literally conceived under the maker's hand can expand itself into forms so subtle that they will never submit to analysis in merely mathematical (or mechanical) terms. In such art, intuition and intellect are always inextricably interlocked."
Although the bronzes predominated in the sixties Denis Mitchell still continued carving with wood and making slate reliefs; they had been his principal materials in the fifties. He also experimented with aluminium as a medium for casting and a consignment of lignum vitae led to some particularly fine carvings. Exhibitions in London, New York, Chicago, Bristol and Edinburgh ensued but most of the work of this period was achieved between spells of part-time teaching, first at Redruth School of Art and later at Penzance Grammar School.
The painter John Wells had been a friend of Denis Mitchell since the post¬war years. Unusually, for a St Ives abstract artist, he had maintained his house and studio in the centre of Newlyn - the other end of the artistic axis of the Penwith peninsula. He owned a spacious combination of meadow, cottage and the old Board School at Trewarveneth Street. The area had been the centre of Stanhope Forbes School of Painting until 1938. Now it was ideal for both a painter and a sculptor. John offered Denis a share of the main studio and use of the courtyard for a low rent. By now Denis was pleased to work away from St Ives as the increasing invasion of summer tourists rendered his studio off Fore Street less enjoyable. So, in 1967, he began to commute daily across the Penwith peninsula to work in the fishing village and artists' colony of Newlyn—a place which had its own specialist art gallery. (In 1974 he was joined in the village by Terry Frost, an old friend from the early St Ives days.)
By 1969 the journeying to and fro was beginning to weary him, especially coping with the summer traffic at the end of a long day of hard physical labour. He and Jane viewed a fine house - 'La Pietra' - on the hill overlooking Mount's Bay. Mr Williams, the local builder, advised them that it was a bargain and they took the bold step of buying it. Jane's early reservations about the house and moving from St Ives were soon overcome and it made a splendid family home. It was only a short walk down the hill to the studio and the house itself had an internal studio room which Denis could use as a thinking and drawing place. It was not long before another run of even more adventurous bronzes and carvings were produced. An additional boost came with the invitation by the British Council to go on a lecture tour of Colombia and spend a month teaching at the University of the Andes in Bogota. Three years earlier the Foreign Office had presented a copy of Zelah to the university. It was a fruitful journey and the South American art inspired several new forms. The titles of these indicate their source, the Spanish names standing out against the carefully chosen Cornish place names which are given to most of his works. From 1973 until 1979 the British Council toured an exhibition of his works to Malta, Cyprus, Greece, Yugoslavia, Malaysia, Indonesia, New Zealand and Korea.
In 1979, at an age when most people think of retiring, Denis Mitchell received the accolade of being invited to show in the first exhibition of the refurbished Glynn Vivian Art Gallery and Museum in his old home city of Swansea. Amusingly he called it his retirement exhibition. His old friend, the artist and collector George Dannatt, wrote the Introduction to the catalogue and Denis wrote an entertaining memoir. It was his first substantial publication and gave him much pleasure.
Now thirteen years and many more good sculptures later he might just concede a little to the notion of retirement, although a day without a morning at work down in the studio and a chat with John Wells is unusual. In recent years he has produced some notable new slate carvings and these were the centre of a Newlyn Orion exhibition at Newlyn Art Gallery in 1985. In 1990 at the age of 78 he produced sufficient work from his studio for a retrospective exhibition with the Gillian Jason Gallery in London. This year he is exhibiting in five exhibitions and has a major outdoor piece Delabole on show at the Millfield Open Sculpture Exhibition at Millfield School in Somerset.
Denis Mitchell would be the first person to point out that making carved
sculpture in metal, stone or wood needs more than one pair of hands. Just
as Barbara Hepworth had relied upon his sensitive skills, so too does he
rely upon the remarkable gifts of his own assistant, Tommy Rowe. They work
together as one. Tommy interprets the drawings and shapes the form with
Denis adding, subtracting and refining as the piece progresses. The maquette
for a bronze is often critically reviewed for weeks before it goes for
casting. The process is one of patient interaction between them. When a
slate, wood or bronze is at the carving stage there is an air of relaxed
concentration, for what is then removed from the mass cannot be put back.
Every surface and every line is considered from all aspects and has to
be just right. Decisions have to be made as to the final finish - polish
or patina. With the slate sculptures great attention is paid to the feel
of the surfaces. They are often rubbed and polished until they are sensuous
to the touch. Denis and Tommy were delighted at the response of partially
sighted people to the last big exhibition with Newlyn Orion - a response
which struck a chord with their craftsman's philosophy that the hand is
an extension of the eye
For Denis the business of making art is intensely personal. It is never mechanical. It is a part of the wholeness of life which revolves around relationships - family, friends and work. His sculpture results from the process of assimilation, contemplation and conversation. All sensitively resolved and delivered. The influences are manifold but, as George Dannatt wrote in the Swansea catalogue, there are probably four influences which are crucial; the artistic environment of St Ives at a formative time in his life: the war-time experience of working in Geevor mine: the visit to South America in 1970: and his time as an assistant to Barbara Hepworth, one of the greatest sculptors of our age. Denis would also include his early visit to the Tate Gallery exhibition of Mexican art.
It is a long life and Denis would be quick to point out that Jane's loyal support has been instrumental to any success he has had. During the fifty-three years they have been married she has always encouraged him to pursue his vocation. Both of them are lovingly supported by their daughters and their husbands and families. The tributes from old friends from the early days, which form part of this volume, speak for themselves. So does his life's work—which is represented in a small part by this exhibition. Denis Mitchell is essentially a religious man. Always ready to acknowledge his creator, always sensing some unseen guidance and always ready to share his gifts and his good fortune.
It is the life of a good man and a fine artist and worthy of our recognition.